Ottawa doctor facing sexual assault charges allowed to practise

A family doctor charged with sexual assault is still permitted to practise in Nepean, sparking questions about whether Ontario's medical regulatory body is doing enough when it comes to serious allegations against physicians.

College of Physicians and Surgeons imposes restrictions on Dr. Walid Al-Houssan, but stops short of suspension

Dr. Walid Al-Houssan has been allowed to continue practising under restrictions imposed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. (Shutterstock)

A family doctor charged with sexual assault is still permitted to practise in Nepean, sparking questions about whether Ontario's medical regulatory body is doing enough when it comes to serious allegations against physicians.

Walid Al-Houssan was charged with sexual assault last spring and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), which regulates the medical profession in the province.

His licence has not been suspended. 

After suffering a head injury, Carolyn Simon visited the Sunrise Medical Centre on Merivale Road in early February this year to make sure she wasn't seriously concussed.

Simon noticed signs posted around the clinic saying Al-Houssan wasn't allowed to be alone with patients, and turned to the internet to find out why.

She discovered Al-Houssan is currently facing three counts of sexual assault, one count of sexual exploitation of a person with a disability, and one count of sexual interference involving a girl under the age of 16. 

The charges were laid in May 2017, according to court records. A trial is scheduled to begin May 27, 2019. 

"I felt really nervous and uncomfortable and kind of shocked that he was still practising," Simon said. "It was a lot of fear and vulnerability."

Because her condition was potentially serious, Simon said she felt like she had a decision to make — seeing a doctor, or feeling safe.
Al-Houssan currently practises at the Sunrise Medical Centre in Nepean. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

Restrictions in place

Despite the charges, Al-Houssan is playing by the rules by continuing to practise. 

While the CPSO investigation is underway, Al-Houssan is practising under several restrictions imposed by a disciplinary committee. 

First, he's only allowed to see patients in the presence of a "practice monitor," described by the college as a regulated health professional such as a registered nurse. 

As Simon discovered, Al-Houssan must also post signs in his clinic notifying patients of the restrictions. In addition to the written notices, he must make sure patients are "directly notified" of the details of the restrictions before any medical examination takes place.

Notifying patients

According to CPSO spokesperson Tracey Sobers, there are a "number of ways that a physician can fulfil the the requirement to directly notify patients," including but not limited to telling them over the phone when they call to make an appointment, or by sending letters.

Simon said that in addition to the posters in Al-Houssan's office, the doctor explained in the examination room that a nurse was present due to "temporary restrictions." He did not go into any more detail about those restrictions, Simon said.

When contacted by CBC News, Al-Houssan deferred questions to his lawyer. The lawyer, Dominic Lamb, did not respond to CBC's questions in time for publication.

Sobers said in an emailed statement that Al-Houssan's medical licence has not been revoked or suspended "in the face of unproven criminal allegations."

Instead, Sobers said restrictions were placed on his licence "in order to protect the public while he is under investigation."

While the CPSO does have the authority to temporarily suspend a physician's licence under the Health Professions Procedural Code, the organization tends to impose "the least restrictive order that can ensure public protection," Sobers said.

'It's important to feel safe'

Susan Hagar is a registered nurse and the owner of Nurse on Board, a patient advocacy organization. She said the relationship patients have with their doctors centres on trust.

"When you've lost the trust in the relationship, you've lost everything," she said. 

Given the allegations, Hagar said some patients may prefer to find another physician, a process that can be time-consuming and tedious. But when it comes right down to it, patients have to make a move if they're not feeling secure.

"It's important to feel safe and it's worth the effort," she said.

When it comes to allegations of sexual assault, Simon believes the restrictions imposed by the CPSO don't go far enough to make patients feel at ease. 

"I kept thinking about all the other women, especially the survivors of sexual assault who have that similar moment, where they have to give up their own feeling of safety just so they can see a doctor," she said. "It's very unfair."​